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Looking ahead to 2020

A roster breakdown and assessment before the offseason

New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images

Every year when the season ends, I like to take a look forward at what the next year’s Opening Day roster would look before the offseason gets going, based only on existing organizational players. I’m a little late this year, especially since the Blue Jays started culling yesterday in earnest, but we’ll overlook that for the first part of the exercise.

This is what things would look like if the Jays simply closed up business until mid-February and did nothing. In that sense, it represents a “replacement level” floor for the front office this winter, since there’s no reason the Opening Day roster shouldn’t be at least this good now that the teardown of the last 12 months is largely complete and a number of future building blocks made their way up in 2019 and can be penciled into the 2020 starting lineup.

It’s worth noting that the Jays got an early start in trimming the backend of the 40-man roster with an unusually high number of players losing spots from late August onwards to make room for younger players (who would have been added anyway) and injured players coming back: Neil Ramirez, Zack Godley, Nick Kingham, Beau Taylor, and Clayton Richard were all jettisoned prior to the end of the season.

The first step is to categorize the current roster into groups, according to contract/control status, service time, talent, and option status (the latter two going to the likelihood of being on the roster). It looks like this:

2020 lookahead flowchart

There were 45 players on the 40-man roster (players on the 60-day DL don’t count towards the limit during the season), which I divide as follows:

2020 lookahead 40-man breakdown

Some high-level points on each group:

  • Free Agents (2): For a second straight year, this group is very small, due to many Opening Day players with expiring contracts having been already moved. These two represent just $11-million in payroll freed up, but that’s merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of open fiscal capacity with $32-million of expiring contracts rolling off to Russell Martin and Kendrys Morales. The Jays paid $26.4-million of that. Additionally, in-season trades moved $28-million of opening day salary, of which the Jays paid $14-million. So in total, about $71-million of around $120-million of Opening Day commitments removed, or about $50-million off the actual cash outlay of around $100-million.
  • 2020 Contracts (2): Another minimally populated category, and one that would be even smaller were it not for Grichuk’s early extension that now looks ill-advised. The total cash outlay increases from $10.5-million to $16.5-million in 2020, which is incidentally is the exact amount by which the one other contractual commitment drops with Troy Tulowitzki owed $14-million instead of $20-million for a total of $30.5-million in firmly committed salary as the winter begins (it’s unclear if his $4-million buyout would hit the 2020 budget)
  • Arbitration (3): Here too is a big departure from previous years. The total of nine arbitration eligibles is quite typical, but unlike the past few years when most were slam dunks to be tendered, this year it’s flipped. There’s been some speculation Matt Shoemaker could be non-tendered to try and save some money, but having missed most of 2019 he won’t earn much if any raise and if the Jays want him for 2020 it doesn’t make any sense. The three locks totalled $11.3-million in 2019 salary and MLBTR projects a raise of $2.5-million to $13.8-million, slightly under my guesstimate.
  • Non-tender candidates (6): I can’t envision a scenario where Devon Travis is tendered a contract. MLBTR is projecting Brandon Drury to almost double his salary which seems optimistic to me after two sub-replacement seasons. It’s not a big number, and that he was brought in by the current regime which weighs in his favour, but how much more opportunity does he merit? Luke Maile is great behind the plate, still has an option, and might be worth keeping as insurance even if Reese McGuire has supplanted him, but will they want to pay him $1M+ to play in Buffalo? These six collectively made $5.9-million in 2019, which MLBTR projecting $8.3-million though without a provision for Wilmer Font (I’d expect a similar number to Law’s $1.3-million (my total guesstimate being $8.8-million).
  • Core pre-arb renewals (12): This year I’ve further divided the pre-arb group into two. This first dozen are those that should be core parts of the team well into the future, either because they project as regulars or impact players at their position. Not only are they locks to be tendered, some are essentially untouchable, and the only they’d be moved is in a package for impact level talent. Some might put a few in the next group
  • Other pre-arb renewals (8): Keeping mind that the line between this group and the bubble (or to the core group) is subjective, these are players who have shown enough to at least intrigue given minimal salary commitment. Not all will necessarily be around next spring, but it would be a surprise if they lost 40-man spots. Tim Mayza might be a bit of an interesting case, as he will miss most or all of next year, and then be arb eligible as a Super Two for 2021. If the Jays aren’t that bullish, they could look to free up this spot (and perhaps bring him back off the 40-man). On pure merit, I’d have Derek Fisher on the bubble, but it would be (inexplicably) absurd to give up what they did and cut bait the next winter so one assumes he’s safe.
  • Bubble (8+4): Shortly after the World Series, the 40-man once again becomes a hard limit. With 45 players and only two free agents, basic math dictates that cuts are required just to get down to the level, and hence Buddy Boshers and Brock Stewart have already been casualties from that most vulnerable group of out-of-options players. That still leaves one more needed, but is also before any spots needed over the winter for players signed or acquired and Rule 5 additions.
    Thus more of the bubble players are vulnerable. Jonathan Davis, Sam Gaviglio and Justin Shafer are holdovers/survivors from last year, but none cemented a future spot in 2019. Julian Merryweather is probably fine given his big arm and the assured reticence to throw in the towel on the handpicked return for Josh Donaldson...but at some point he has to stay healthy. Pannone and McKinney are current regime guys, but need to take a step forward to be viable. Rowdy Tellez could arguably be on the borderline this winter, but the bar is just so high realtive to what he’s consistently produced.

With all that considered, a 2020 Opening Day roster constructed solely with existing organizational resources would look something like this:

2020 lookahead lineup

A few points and thoughts:

  • A reminder that in 2020, the active roster expands to 26, with a requirement of 13 pitchers and 13 position players, which is reflected above (and which simplifies the exercise since with a 25-man roster I’d have to go with 13 pitches despite more of an option crunch on the position side
  • Priority is given to out-of-options players where it’s close. Green is for players who can be optioned unilaterally in 2019, blue is for those who cannot.
  • Purely co-incidently, Travis and Valera fall alphabetically at the bottom of the “Other” column; either would be an obvious choice to get down to a 40-man limit
  • The obvious logjam is in the outfield with Fisher and Alford both being out of options, Grichuk’s guaranteed contract, Gurriel’s offensive breakout and then the enigma of Teoscar Hernandez. I wouldn’t be happy to see Alford moved, but it could work if the DH spot stays open. And regardless, it may be time to see what Hernandez can do if he doesn’t have to worry about misadventures in the outfield.
  • Maile is ahead of McGuire purely on the basis of seniority. There would probably be takers if they tendered him and then everyone was healthy and they wanted a Jansen/McGuire tandem without paying Maile real money to be in Buffalo.
  • The total cost of this Opening Day roster, including the obligation to Tulo, would be almost bang on $60-million (or $46-million for the actual roster). Realistically, Ken Giles is almost certain to be moved, which would cut that to $52-million/$38-million. Non-tendering all listed in the previous section (and replacing with pre-arb players) could shave maybe another $4-million.
  • Unless they really shake things up and look to make some big upgrades, opportunistically or otherwise, the position player group seems largely set. The pitching on the hand...definitely can use some serious upgrading. It would surprising if half those names were on the actual opening day staff (accounting for inevitable injures).
  • Closing with a little editorializing regarding two last two points: I’ll be very disappointed if serious cash is not deployed this winter. There’s no excuse for a team in a market the size of Toronto not be spending in the $100-million range on major league payroll even at the trough of the cycle. That doesn’t mean burning money for the sake of spending it, but it would be inexcusable not to be leveraging financial resources/capacity to accelerate the return to competitive and contending baseball.